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By Joshua Foust
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens wrote a provocative article for Foreign Policy, in which he argues that Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-Yemeni preacher working for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is “the most persuasive supporter of jihad for Muslims in the West.”
Under any circumstances, this would be a difficult argument to make: persuasion is notoriously difficult to quantify and measure. Even in discourse studies, measuring the influence or persuasion of individual figures is difficult: there is first-mover bias (in which one is important not because of any merit but merely because one said it first), and any number of other phenomenon that contribute to one’s influence in unpredictable ways. Politicians hire PR consultants, management consultants, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on “messaging,” and still cannot consistently predict reaction and electoral outcome.
Marketing firms try this as well: planting the desire for a product, or persuading consumers to purchase something they might not need but might definitely want. Marketing, too, is notoriously unpredictable—for reasons few people acknowledge or explain one quirky, off-beat commercial like the Old Spice Guy is a raging success, while a similarly quirky advertising campaign like Burger King’s is an expensive failure.
This is because, at the end of the day, it’s rare that people are “persuaded” to do anything. As humans, we tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and wants and to ignore contrasting information—and there is a rich field of studies in cognitive psychology to back this up. In other words, most advertising—and most political messaging—is really about reinforcing beliefs and wants one already has, and providing a means to express justification for them.
In that light, describing Aulaqi as “the most persuasive” doesn’t make any sense. There is no way to prove such an argument. And indeed, in Meleagrou-Hitchens’ article, his evidence never rises above the circumstantial: some people read something on the Internet, and then they acted. They liked a speech, and then they acted. They read some manifesto, then they acted. This is correlation, to be sure. But is is not evidence of persuasion.
Meleagrou-Hitchens’ argument rests on the belief that Anwar al-Aulaqi possesses a unique capability to radicalize Westerners. Appealing to the publication of Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by AQAP, which has suggested Muslims carry out lone-wolf terror operations, Meleagrou-Hitchens argues that this is the crux of Aulaqi’s influence on radicalizing Westerners. His evidence amounts to interrogated statements by a few people who were arrested trying to commit murder: they enjoyed reading Aulaqi, he argues, so therefore Aulaqi persuaded them to commit violence.
Such an argument is logically backward. Why did these people decide to read Aulaqi in the first place? Roshonara Choudhry, one of the people Meleagrou-Hitchens cites as an Aulaqi inspiration, was not a radical in 2008. Yet, in 2009, she began to download Aulaqi’s sermons, eventually claiming to act upon them. What everyone who claims Aulaqi thus inspired her act ignore, including Meleagrou-Hitchens, is why she began to download Aulaqi’s sermons in the first place. I suspect it goes back to the conceit behind advertising, political messaging, and so on: people are not easily persuaded, but they are easily reinforced. I can’t answer what changed, but something happened where an otherwise adjusted young woman starts reaching out to an Internet preacher demanding violence. There is no evidence to support the assertion, however, that it was ideology, and specifically Aulaqi’s talents of persuasion, which directly inspired her to stab an MP.
The heart of my problem with discussing Islamist ideology is that I don’t understand how it affects behavior. Behavior is a complex process. It is the result of a number of causal factors, including constraints, signaling from peers, intent, and capability. All of those must come together in order for a behavior to occur. Ideology can be a contributing factor, as it is a form of signaling and constraint — making some behaviors appear to be acceptable, and some not. But this happens in an unpredictable way, and the fact we all acknowledge here (namely, that some people choose to act and most do not) should tell us that it is not a simple process to describe or predict.
The assumption behind the ideology discussion appears to be that behavior is a gun, and ideology is a trigger. That is, you have a person, they accept ideology, and then the output is behavior (in this case, violence). But that just isn’t how people work, and using some basic logic and self-knowledge can reveal that. We are not mono-causal creatures, even in relatively simple matters like choosing where to eat lunch. In particularly emotional issues, like religion and death, I would argue we are especially bad at explaining our beliefs and behavior (and there is actually a substantial body of cognitive science literature that argues people are reliably unreliable in accurately explaining their decisions).
We react to our environment, we respond to peer pressures, to community norms and signals, to physical and social constraints on behavior, and so on. Ideology can, potentially, be one of those contributing factors — as a means of signaling and of establishing justification for certain behaviors. But to say that ideology causes behavior is difficult if not impossible to prove — not only can we never get inside someone’s head to say, conclusively, why they did something, but we know, from neuroscience, that people cannot explain their own behavior consistently. And still, you’re left with the lingering question of why this specific person reacted against ideology while the thousands of others who were exposed to it did not.
At best, ideology is a woefully incomplete explanation for why terrorists chose to commit terror. But to argue that it is so important requires a standard of evidence that is, in practical terms, impossible to achieve.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net.